Here’s a statistical curiosity that – if it continues – is going to have a real impact on the final standings of a shortened 48-game NHL season.
Of the first 127 games played this season through Monday, 30 went to overtime and 18 were decided by shootouts.
That’s roughly in line with the historical average. But what’s different is how the vast majority of the “loser” points – 21 as compared to nine – were “earned” by teams playing in Western Conference.
The NHL changed a lot of things about the business of hockey in the last round of collective bargaining negotiations, but the bizarre practice of awarding three points for some games and two points for others was never broached.
It meant that in the first 17 days of the season, there were 12 additional points awarded in the Western Conference, which is going to make it even harder for the early bottom feeders to make up ground as the season moves along. After all, there is no interconference play this year – and the divide between West and East is particularly acute when it comes to shootouts.
Of the 18 games decided by shootouts in the NHL so far, only three have occurred in the East. Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators have been involved in a league-high five shootout games, while the Vancouver Canucks have played in four and the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks three apiece.
The Blackhawks have had three consecutive games decided in shootouts heading into Tuesday night’s first-place showdown with the Sharks, losing two and then winning the third last Saturday, when Patrick Kane scored against Miikka Kiprusoff in a 3-2 victory over the Calgary Flames.
According to Kane, the Blackhawks did something different before the Calgary game that may have contributed to a better result.
“It’s funny,” Kane said, “because we lost the first two shootouts and didn’t do any film. Then, before our regular meeting [last Saturday], we called in seven, eight guys and watched the last 10 shootout attempts on Kiprusoff.”
Did it help? It probably didn’t hurt.
Prescouting goalies – and putting some real thought into the shootout – represents a significant shift from the 2005-06 season, when the shootout was first introduced and teams took a casual, almost cavalier approach to it.
The shootout may still be a gimmick to some, but since it doesn’t appear to be going away any time soon, NHL teams are finally treating it as a part of the game, something they need to practise in the same way they practise breakouts or penalty killing.
“You’re right about that,” Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville said. “I just think we’re playing 48 games. The juggling for positioning and the value of the points is tremendous. We know it’s going to have implications at the end.”
Quenneville is fortunate to have two excellent shootout specialists at his disposal: Kane and team captain Jonathan Toews, who once memorably scored three consecutive shootout goals in a world junior championship game, using three different moves. Kane is 11th all-time in NHL shootout goals, with 24, while Toews is 13th, with 23.
Detroit Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk leads with 31, but the player with the best percentage is New York Islanders centre Frans Neilson, at 60.5 per cent (23-for-38).
Variety is the key to shootout success, Kane says. One of his signature moves is to skate in on the goaltender, virtually coast to a halt, try to get him to commit one way or the other and then find the opening.
Kane missed using that “slowdown” move against Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo the night before, so mindful of the fact Kiprusoff might be looking for it, took a different tack 24 hours later and came barrelling in fast.
“I just tried to switch it up,” Kane said. “We’ve been in three straight shootouts. I missed the first two times. One of them, I tried the slowdown move. Usually, I go second and watch what Johnny [Toews] does and kinda see how the goalie reacts.
“I saw Kiprusoff poke-check on Johnny, so I thought I’d be able to pull it to the backhand and go five hole. Luckily, it went in.”
According to Quenneville, the Blackhawks practised the shootout almost every day in training camp and now whenever they can squeeze in a practice in the shortened season. He believes you can instruct the players all you want, but in the end, they need to make a split-second decision in the moment – relying on their instincts, and their abilities to read what the goaltender is giving them.
Strangely enough, it took almost seven years for that awareness to fully sink in across the NHL.
Now, teams get it. The shootout is a fact of life, so you better take advantage when the opportunity arises. For some team somewhere, it’ll likely be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.